301 S. Main
The best corner in Ann Arbor
by Grace Shackman
Elaine Selo, co-owner of the Selo/Shevel Gallery, calls its longtime location at 301 S. Main "the best corner in Ann Arbor. The building's changes over the past 142 years mirror downtown's evolution. Built in 1871 by German immigrant Henry Binder, it originally housed Binder's third-story saloon as well as his own large family. In the twentieth century, when downtown was the county's shopping center, Hutzel's Ladies Apparel sold upscale women's dresses on the corner from 1916 until 1989, when it was purchased by Selo and Cynthia Shevel, her partner in both life and business. Now 301 S. Main has been sold again, and its next use will doubtless reflect downtown's changing character.
Binder immigrated to Ann Arbor in 1852 at age twenty-one. Discovering there was only one small hotel in town, he built another one by the railroad station. It did well, and with the proceeds he began erecting brick commercial buildings downtown.
When the shopping district expanded south from the courthouse square on N. Main, Binder tore down his home to construct the building that still stands at 301 S. Main. Done in the Commercial Italianate style, with tall windows capped with ornate hoods and brackets at the roofline, it blended well with the other buildings then going up nearby. Binder moved into the second floor with his wife and eleven children. On the taller top floor, he opened a "lager beer and refreshment saloon" that he named Orchestrion Hall after its entertainment system: a sort of giant music box that could imitate the sound of a wind orchestra.
In 1877, recent immigrants Samuel and John Baumgardner opened a grocery store and bakery on the street level. "They started in business in a humble way, and scarcely knowing any of the English language," the 1881 History of Washtenaw County, Michigan reported. In 1880 the Baumgardners built a "large and commodious bakery" at the back of the building and quickly gained a reputation for being some of the best
bakers in the county. Their ads mention "greatly celebrated Vienna Bread" as well as an array of housewares for sale, including crockery, china, and glassware. When the Baumgardners moved to a new location in 1892, the storefront became a showroom for the Ann Arbor Organ company, whose factory was a few blocks away.
By the time the German American Bank moved into 301 S. Main in 1906, Italianate was considered old-fashioned and overly ornate. The bank simplified the brackets, took off the window hoods, squared the windows, and made the pilasters (fake columns) larger and blockier. They added more light by putting in oriel windows on the second floor and Luxfer windows on the first, both in style at that time. (Luxfer windows incorporate prisms to project more light into a building's interior.)
The next tenant, Charles Hutzel, had managed the ladies' ready-to-wear department at Mack's, then the city's major department store, before going into business for himself in 1916. When Charles died in 1943, his son Ray took over, running Hutzel's Ladies Apparel until 1969, when he sold the business to George and Mary Dibble.
Connie Osler recalls Hutzel's as the place to go if you wanted something sophisticated to wear for a special occasion. The only other place selling clothes of this caliber was a special department in Goodyear's department store. "They had wonderful personnel attached to beautiful clothing," recalls Molly Dobson, another Hutzel's shopper. "As soon as you put your foot in the door, you were warmly welcomed." Dobson adds that Hutzel's carried "so many salable dresses you couldn't decide what to take home."
In the back of the store, in the former bakery, Dobson's sister-in-law, Helen Dobson, ran a gift shop selling silver, crystal, and other items that would appeal to Hutzel's clientele. "Helen loved beautiful things," recalls Dobson. She traveled all over Europe on buying trips. Dobson remembers that when a friend sent you a gift in the store's lovely yellow and white box, you knew it would be something wonderful.
The building was also the home of the city's first radio station. WPAG, 1050 AM, began broadcasting April 26, 1945 from a studio on the third floor. While selling ads for a Detroit radio station, Ted Baughn had seen that Ann Arbor needed its own radio station, so he joined forces with Paul Greene and his brother Arthur, the founder of Greene's Cleaners. The partners had wanted to start the station in 1941, but the War Production Board refused to grant permission; the equipment they had purchased was sent instead to North Africa. The call letters reflected the brothers' initials--though because the station was upstairs from Hutzel's, legendary WPAG sportscaster Bob Ufer liked to claim that they really stood for "women's panties and girdles."
WPAG's programming was locally oriented and included news, music, sports, weather, and farm reports. There was no elevator, so employees got to work by climbing what they called "the stairway to heaven." That was especially challenging for Dick Brunvand, news director from 1966 to 1968, who needed crutches to get around. "Those days I was much more mobile on my crutches than today and would climb those stairs two or three times a day," he recalls. "I would strap a rather heavy recorder to a crutch so I could haul it up and down the stairs."
The second floor, where the Binders once lived, was by then divided into offices--mainly dentists and doctors, but also a beauty salon. "I can still vividly recall the smell of the nasty chemicals that they used on women's hair wafting down the hallway as you came up the stairs," says Jim Heddle, WPAG disc jockey and sportscaster from 1978 to 1980. "I think they had been in business a long time, because I never saw anyone under the age of eighty among their clientele. Us radio folks used to try to run down to Lucky Drugs to grab a quick snack or pop during the network news and were often late getting back into the studio because there always seemed to be a large elderly woman with a walker blocking our path, slowly trying to climb the stairs."
Tom Monaghan bought the station in 1986 and moved it to Domino's Farms, where he renamed it WPZA, for Radio Pizza. It's now WTKA and specializes in sports talk. Part of the Cumulus chain, it's based in the company's office on Victors Way.
Selo and Shevel met in 1965 when both were social work students in the U-M master's program. Shevel, who came from a retail background, opened Middle Earth in 1967, originally in a small space upstairs on E. Liberty. Selo went on to earn her PhD in 1976 and then worked for the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, studying law enforcement reactions to violence.
The couple had always traveled and had picked up a lot of great objects, so they added a gallery to Middle Earth. But students did not make good gallery customers, so when the funding for Selo's project ran out in 1982, they opened Selo/Shevel on Main St., a few doors south of its present location. Shevel continued managing Middle Earth, while Selo ran the gallery.
Selo, who had never studied business or even taken much interest in it, describes the opening as a "trial by fire," adding "I didn't know how hard it would be. If I had, I would have been scared." To choose merchandise, she says, "I saw what people were buying. I talked to customers, and I saw what worked ... Ann Arbor people were supportive of this kind of downtown."
When it's suggested that she had a great eye, Selo replies, "I was lucky in my taste." Her father studied medicine in Berlin, but when the Nazis wouldn't give him a license because he was Jewish, he emigrated to the United States and practiced medicine in Iowa. Her parents enjoyed going to estate sales on weekends, and she grew up in a home furnished with oriental rugs and Biedermeier furniture.
The store was originally devoted to imports that Selo and Shevel brought back from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. "We'd look around and see what we liked," Selo says. "We always found great stuff. We had no system." They gradually added contemporary American crafts. Many stores specialize in one or the other, but Selo thinks they complemented each other and gave customers a wider range of choice.
In 1989, when Selo and Shevel bought the building at 301 S. Main from the Dibbles, it was in bad shape from many years of wear. The upstairs, Selo says, was "a total shambles." The roof needed replacing, and the windows on the second and third floor were about to fall out; on the first floor, windows had been blocked to give the dressing rooms privacy.
The Hutzel's sign, which projected from the building to be visible from both streets, didn't meet the requirements of the city's sign ordinance, but, with support from the Historic District Commission, the new owners were given a variance to keep it.
After more than twenty years on the corner, last fall Selo and Shevel sold their building to Reza Rahmani, an eye doctor with three locations in suburban Detroit, who has been buying Ann Arbor real estate in recent years. He did not respond to recent attempts to reach him, but in an earlier interview he said he was going to renovate the upstairs office space and put in an elevator but do nothing to change the exterior. Selo has faith, saying, "Something very good will come in after us. I'm not worried, because the buyer realizes the importance and significance of this building."
The store has to be empty by the end of March. As the closing date gets nearer, customers have been telling Selo about items they bought from her that they still cherish and how sorry they are that the store is closing.
Selo admits the feeling is mutual, and that she will miss her customers. So what's next for the couple? "It'll be a different life," she says. "Yes, we'll travel, but we've always traveled. I'd like to take classes, make soup, and sit by the fireplace and read."
[Originally published in March, 2014.]